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Stephen Harper speaks in the House of Commons on Jan. 27, 2014.

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

After an autumn beset by questions about the Senate spending scandal, Stephen Harper's Conservatives returned to the House of Commons intent on focusing discussion around Canada's economy – a topic his rivals appear set to challenge him on.

Conservatives stuck to messaging on their bread-and-butter issue as members of Parliament returned Monday after the holiday break. The budget's release date was announced and Mr. Harper mounted a defence of the embattled Canada Jobs Grant program, a pillar of the previous budget and of his government's job-creation focus.

"This government remains absolutely committed to the notion that to address some of these problems, we need to get employers and institutions and individuals who are looking for work working together to fill jobs that can be filled," Mr. Harper said about the program, which provinces have fought, saying it would jeopardize existing training programs.

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"We remain fully committed to making sure we do everything we can to build on the very good job creation record of this country," he later added, asked again about the program.

Mr. Harper's top rivals appear set to battle him on his stewardship of the economy. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair said the Conservative economic approach has failed with sluggish recovery since the recession, striking a more interventionist tone in lamenting the loss of manufacturing jobs in Canada and calling on government to have a more direct role in spurring job growth. "The Conservatives believe in a theoretical, pristine marketplace that arbitrates all things economic. It hasn't worked," he said after Question Period.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said flatly the Conservatives' reputation on the economic is sinking. "The problem for them is Canadians are starting to realize their reputation as competent fiscal managers is evaporating rapidly with any sense that they know what they're doing," Mr. Trudeau said.

Economic issues were nonetheless one of many subjects the Prime Minister weighed in on when Parliament returned Monday.

The Senate scandal continues to swirl. E-mail records filed in court last year by the RCMP suggest Mr. Harper gave a "good to go" approval on a party plan to repay Mike Duffy's expenses with Conservative Party money. Mr. Harper has denied this is the case. Given that, he was asked Monday whether he's yet told RCMP that he believes the account is inaccurate.

Mr. Harper declined to say if he'd spoken to the RCMP. "Mr. Speaker, on the financial transaction, the RCMP is investigating. The RCMP itself has been very clear that I had no knowledge of that," he said.

He also declined to detail his continued defence of Senator Irving Gerstein, the Conservatives' top fundraiser who the same RCMP records suggest knew details about the plans to repay Mr. Duffy's expenses – first with party money, then with the personal funds of Mr. Harper's then chief of staff, Nigel Wright. RCMP have suggested Mr. Gerstein was aware of many of the details of the plan, which Mr. Harper has disavowed knowledge of before it was reported in the media. But the Prime Minister has stuck by his top fundraiser while pinning the blame on Mr. Wright and Mr. Duffy.

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Pressed on the subject by Mr. Mulcair, Mr. Harper avoided saying Mr. Gerstein's name and said only "those facts are not accepted" and "the individual he is making accusations against is not under any investigation."

Mr. Harper was also asked about the recent string of suicides in the Canadian military. He urged soldiers to seek mental health services if needed.

"Obviously, we are concerned about individual cases and express our deep sympathies to those involved. What I think remains very important is that our military people should be aware that mental health challenges are very real for people throughout society, including in the military. Supports are there and we encourage those who need support to come forward," he said.

Finally, Mr. Harper stood up to defend Chuck Strahl, who'd been serving as chair of Canada's Security Intelligence Review Committee while also registered as a lobbyist for Enbridge, the company behind the contentious Northern Gateway pipeline. Amid questions about both roles, the ex-cabinet-minister resigned as CSIRC chair Friday, stressing he had not been found guilty of any wrongdoing but that he did "not wish to be in the centre of the political fray."  The Prime Minister said his ex-colleague did nothing wrong.

"Chuck Strahl is one of the most honourable and decent people that I have ever worked with in the Parliament of Canada. It is a shame that for the sake of his personal reputation, he is no longer willing to provide his services," he said, to loud cheers from his caucus.

The House adjourned a few days early in December, one day before cuts were announced at Canada Post – a subject that wasn't raised on Monday during Question Period. The House of Commons is scheduled to sit until June, though with regular breaks of one or two weeks. The first break comes in February.

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